On Kisan Diwas, the thinking farmer rues the absence of towering farmer leaders like Charan Singh as the farm sector sinks deeper into a crisis.
Visiting MBA students from at the UCLA, told that the biggest problem Indian farmers face was non-representation on the high table of policy making, asked: Why does a predominantly rural nation and with 40 per cent of the population directly dependent on agriculture have no leaders representing the farming community? That is a good question to contemplate on ‘Kisan Diwas’, observed on the birth anniversary of the late Prime Minister, Chaudhary Charan Singh, India’s last genuine farmer leader, though difficult to answer convincingly.
There were many kisan stalwarts like Sir Chotu Ram in undivided Punjab, Panjab Rao Deshmukh in Maharashtra, Baldev Ram Mirdha in Rajasthan and M. D. Nanjundaswamy in Andhra Pradesh, with whom the rural masses could identify. Similarly, Charan Singh, born a Jat in the erstwhile United Provinces, in today’s Hapur district in Uttar Pradesh, who never projected his caste identity but initiated land reforms to stop the exploitation of tenant farmers and stitching a loose alliance MAJGAR, Muslims, Ahirs, Jats, Gurjars and Rajputs. The rural masses found in Charan Singh their voice and leader. Eventually, he was used and outwitted by the well-entrenched politically-savvy establishment.
The late eighties saw the beginning of the end of farmers’ solidarity with a weakening of farmer leaders on the Indian political landscape. Two significant developments hastened the demise of farmer movements: the Mandal Commission and Panchayati Raj. Politics changed thereafter. The political turmoil that followed the Mandal Commission agitation divided the rural communities on caste lines. Leaders who steered clear of the caste divide or did not project themselves as representatives of their own caste lost support of their communities even as other groups did not identify with them. The likes of Hardik Patel in Gujarat are a manifestation of that change. The demand for caste reservations divide farmers and hinder unionisation.
The Constitution prescribes a multi-party system that allows multiple contestants vying for the same position. Therefore, in any village there are invariably over 20-25 contestants jostling for a few panchayat seats every few years. Thus every village policy is splintered on multiple political lines. This destroyed any semblance of village or farmer-level unity that was already weakening in the wake of the Mandal agitation.
In the nineties,in the era of liberalisation, there emerged a new kind of rural leadership with strong caste leanings. Even though from rural areas, these leaders were not solely dependent on farming as a source of livelihood. This generation was educated, savvy and urbane and focused on attaining power as a means to amassing wealth. Flushed with money, they became a major factor in determining winners and losers. The old farmers’ leadership or genuine farmers did not stand a chance.
The MNREGA further sealed political divisions in villages. The payment of money under MNREGA is subject to influence of the village sarpanch. It gave an impetus for people to contest panchayat elections which became an investment to be recouped by siphoning off MNREGA funds. This is borne by the fact that money spent in a village election is 10 times more than what is spent in the same village during assembly elections. The fierce contest for the few village posts has eroded any hope of unity in the farmer community.
Alongside came the political decimation of the farmer leader. Today, farmers do not hold senior positions in any major national political party. This absence is so pronounced that the parties do not even bother to hide the fact or pretend to show otherwise, even in the face of severely fragmented land holdings and unprofitable farming, as the government’s focus shifts. Larger-than-life aspirations and disdain for farming have made off-farm jobs more coveted as farming ceases to be a natural choice even in farming families.
A silent migration from the rural areas that began in the first decade of the 21st century has swelled to be the largest in human history. Population projections show that 75 per cent of the people will reside in urban areas by 2050. Farmers will have to reshape the values of these urban dwellers to secure favourable policy. Today, nearly all farmer families have at least one member earning from off-farm work and they are not solely dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. This has led the farming community members identifying themselves more as consumers rather than producers, engendering an identity crisis and destroying any prospect of solidarity.
Farmers across India grow different crops. Most years, farmers growing one or the other crop are distressed. All crops naturally have different peaks and troughs in terms of profitability, differing even geographically for the same crop within the same time span. Selective government incentives or compensation for crop loss keeps the discontent simmering. At no point of time are all farmers equally distressed or unhappy to find a common cause to unionise. For the first time in decades things may be about to change.
The realisation on Kisan Diwas, is that farmers are fighting a losing battle against a government while urban society is more concerned about consumer needs rather than that of producers. Ominously, this government, having inherited a farm mess, may actually aggravate the rural distress to such an extent that farmers may ultimately unite to rebel. All that is needed is a leader like Charan Singh. Regrettably, none are in sight though.